Books

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The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry

Published 28/04/2010 by damselwithadulcimer

An Irish novel about memory, truth, bigotry and religion told through the words of the elderly lady who has lived through these prejudices and experiences. Roseanne, an elderly inmate of a mental institution, recalls her childhood and her days as a young woman living around Sligo.  As she secretly consigns her memories and thoughts to paper, in the same way that female novelists may have done during the nineteenth century, her story weaves and is woven around that of her psychiatrist, Dr Grene.  She is approaching her hundredth birthday and is permitted to have hazy recollections of the past: Dr Grene, the scientist, methodically tries to piece together what he can about her previous life.

It is a fascinating, beautifully related account of growing up in rural Ireland in the years before, during and after the civil war and independence.  Roseanne’s narration borders on poetry in places and is juxtaposed by her doctor’s more rational account of matters as he uncovers facts.  Hers is a life of conflict: a Presbyterian Irish father and an English mother, who was raised as a member of the Plymouth Brethren.  The family sits on the edges of the struggle for Irish independence, but is unfairly dragged in from the margins.  Was her father a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary, was he murdered by Irish patriots, or did he take his own life?  Does she inherit her mother’s insanity, is she a nymphomaniac, and does she murder her own child?  The novel takes on aspects of a detective story as Dr Grene becomes more and more involved with his patient and strives to learn the truth.

We sympathise with both narrators as they struggle to make sense of their own lives.  Dr Grene’s unhappy marriage echoes Roseanne’s earlier misfortunes, and his bereavement anticipates the tragedies that he will later discover have befallen her, although it is never clear whether or not she has read the letter informing her of these unhappy events.  All the pieces finally fall into their correct places after Dr Grene visits England and is able to complete the jigsaw puzzle.  Life is what we make of it, but sometimes we are controlled by external events, and the truth can be stranger than fiction.


Dancing Backwards by Salley Vickers

Published 13/04/2010 by damselwithadulcimer

Dancing Backwards by Salley Vickers

It’s many years since I read Miss Garnet’s Angel and I decided it was time to catch up with another of Salley Vickers’s novels.  Dancing Backwards is an older woman’s physical journey across the Atlantic to meet up with an old friend, whilst her mind travels back to the past and recreates a period when they were close friends.  As she travels forward in time, her memories take her back to her younger days, and she discovers the answers to questions she has always known, but never acknowledged.

Drawing on contemporary and cultural references we travel with Violet, the protagonist,  back to England in the 1960s as she relives her teens and early twenties. Vi first meets Edwin, the friend she is visiting, when she is an undergraduate student, and he is a postgraduate tutor at Cambridge University.  He is writing a thesis on Ovid and she, shrinking, shy violet that she is, amazes him with her knowledge of John Donne.  Other literary allusions are made to Christopher Marlowe, who attended Corpus Christi college, Tristram Shandy, The Duchess of Malfi (a text taught by Edwin when he abandons his thesis and teaches at a school in Oxford) and Mustardseed, one of the fairies in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This is used as the title of a poetry anthology that is set up by Edwin and Violet, and leads into several mentions of Peter Brook’s production of that play, although Vi never manages to see it.

The novel introduces references to contemporary culture and reminds us that we are part of the modern consumer society.  The younger Vi shopped at Biba and used Nivea cream on her face, she drank Valpolicella (Valpol), the mature woman imbibes Chablis, Dr Kildare is watched on television, Rice Krispies are eaten for breakfast, Spider-Man becomes a miniature on a keyring, mobile phones are mislaid, the ship’s gift shop sells expensive malt Scotch and Gucci handbags, Mitsouko perfume is dabbed behind the ears and La Dolce Vita is shown in the cinema.  As a counterbalance to the sprinkling of writers and their works (that also include Mark Twain, Hermann Melville and A E Houseman) we are also made aware of a child’s favourite story, Skarloey and His Friends.  Vi befriends the young Patrick, who enjoys the later stories about the Railway Engines as the novel anticipates the birth of her forthcoming granddaughter, Blossom, who will be named after Blossom Dearie, the jazz singer.
Shakespeare seems to run through the novel like a leitmotif. Vi borrows a copy of his complete works from the ship’s library and is plagued by a quotation from the bard, but one that she is unable to locate until helped in New York by a literary critic she has met on board.  He completes her snippet of ‘They say miracles are past…’ with ‘and we have our philosophical persons, to make modern and familiar, things supernatural and causeless.  Hence it is that we make trifles of terrors, ensconcing ourselves into seeming knowledge, when we should submit ourselves to an unknown fear’ and reminds her that it is from All’s Well That Ends Well.  Violet is finally faces her unknown fears and realises that the future will not be such a bad place after all.  T S Eliot famously stated that his past was in his present: we all carry the baggage of our former selves and it is sometimes necessary to face the past in order to face up to the future.